I suppose the best way to answer this would be to look at the rationale behind the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment to the US Constitution. This amendment was accepted in 1804 and was in place in effect for that year's presidential election. Notably, this was the fifth presidential election under this Constitution. That is to say, there were four previous elections under the old rules for electing the president and vice president. So, let's look at how things worked in those four elections. However, before delving into that, we should probably look at the electoral rules before and after the Twelfth Amendment.
Original Electoral Rules
Article II, Section 1, Clause 3: Electors
- Each elector casts two votes for president.
- If the candidate who received the most votes also received votes from a majority of all electors (i.e. the winning candidate was voted on by at least 50% of the electors), that candidate is elected as president.
- If the candidate who received the most votes did not receive votes from the majority of all electors, the House of Representatives would vote on who would be elected president.
- After the president has been determined, the vice president is the individual not elected president who received the most votes.
Twelfth Amendment Electoral Rules
- Each elector casts one vote for president and one vote for vice president. These votes are counted up on separate ballots: one for president and the other for vice president.
- If the candidate for president who received the most votes also received a majority of all votes (i.e. the winning candidate received at least 50% of the votes), that candidate is elected as president.
- If the candidate for president who received the most votes did not receive the majority of all votes, the House of Representatives (with one vote per state) would vote on who would be elected president.
- If the candidate for vice president who received the most votes also received a majority of all votes (i.e. the winning candidate received at least 50% of the votes), that candidate is elected as vice president.
- If the candidate for vice president who received the most votes did not receive the majority of all votes, the Senate would vote on who would be elected vice president.
This was the first presidential election, and it resulted in George Washington winning 69 electoral votes and John Adams was the runner-up with 34 electoral votes. Washington was very popular and the Constitutional framers presumed that he would be elected unopposed. There were no parties at the time, but there were some rudimentary factions: the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. Both sides supported Washington, so there wasn't really a question on who would be president. However, since there really wasn't any other candidate, there was still a question of who would be vice president. Ultimately, the electors settled on a few different choices for who their second vote would go to, but John Adams received most of these second-choice votes and thus became the vice president.
By this election, the political parties became more defined. The Federalist faction became the Federalist party and the Anti-Federalist faction became the Democratic-Republican party. Both parties were happy with George Washington and intended to re-elect him for president. Washington wanted to retire after his first term, but political leaders from these new parties convinced him to stay on so as to help bridge the political divides that were starting to form. Ultimately, Washington once again solidly won the presidency and John Adams won the more-contested vice presidency.
This was the first election not involving George Washington. So this is also the first truly contested election where there was an actual race for president, and the vice president would actually be the loser of the election. Thus, this is the first election where the process laid out in the Constitution would actually be tested. One consequence of the process laid out in the Constitution is that there was an incentive for each party to field multiple candidates as the parties would ideally like both the presidency and the vice presidency to be held by similarly minded people.
For the Federalists, the obvious nominee was John Adams as he had twice been elected vice president in the past. They ultimately chose Thomas Pinckney as their other nominee. The Democratic-Republicans chose Thomas Jefferson as their main nominee and Aaron Burr as their second-choice nominee.
The election itself was a bit complicated as the parties needed to ensure that their primary choice for president actually won the election. If they all voted for the same president and vice president, the two nominees would tie and the election would have to go to the House for a vote. So there was a lot of background discussion amongst the electors for who they would actually vote for second. Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist, actually wanted Pinckney to be elected as president over Adams, so he was speaking to Democratic-Republican electors to try to get them to vote for Pinckney as their second choice while also trying to convince the Federalist electors to vote for Pinckney as their second choice.
Ultimately, Adams secured a very narrow majority with 71 electoral votes (one more than was required for a majority) and Jefferson secured second place with 68 electoral votes. Thus, although the electoral strategy was convoluted and complicated, the Electoral College was able to elect a president without having the House of Representatives step in to decide.
However, Jefferson ended up being elected as vice president. So in this situation, the president and vice president were politically opposed to each other. In future elections, the parties would try to be smarter with their votes so that they could ensure that they won both the presidency and the vice presidency.
This election is ultimately where the original process fell apart. The primary candidates were once again John Adams for the Federalists and Thomas Jefferson for the Democratic-Republicans. This time, Adams ran alongside Charles Pinckney (Thomas Pinckney's brother) and Jefferson alongside Aaron Burr. The main candidates were the same as in the prior election, but this time, the parties had a bit better understanding of how the electoral process would work and coordinated their votes more successfully. The Federalists designated just one elector who would defect from their second-choice candidate and instead cast a vote for John Adams and John Jay, while the rest would vote for Adams and Pinckney. The Democratic-Republicans had the same plan, but it failed and everybody cast their two votes for the same two candidates: Jefferson and Burr. Thus, Jefferson and Burr both tied as winner with 73 electoral votes each. Since there was a tie, the election would then move to the House of Representatives to decide the president and vice president.
In the House of Representatives, each state gets one vote. There were sixteen states, so to win the presidency, the candidate needed to secure at least nine states' vote. In this situation, the House of Representatives was dominated by the Federalist party, but the two leading candidates in the presidential election were both Democratic-Republicans. Jefferson was the leading face of the party, so the Federalists in the House were more in favor of Aaron Burr. So when it came to voting, the Federalists typically voted for Burr and the Democratic-Republicans voted for Jefferson. In states that were evenly split in representation, they ended up sending in blank ballots and voting for neither in the initial election, so neither Jefferson nor Burr won in this first round of voting.
In the second round of voting, there was a fear that Burr would actually end up as president, even though he had been elected as the presumptive vice president candidate. Ultimately, Hamilton, a prominent Federalist threw his support behind Jefferson, and the House voted for Jefferson to be president with Burr then becoming the vice president.
The election of 1800 showed how difficult the election process was under the original framing of the Constitution. In the prior election, the result was that the president and vice president were political opponents. In this election, the electors tried to be smarter with their votes so that their two preferred candidates would actually be elected. However, through a failure in execution of this strategy, they nearly ended up in a situation where the actual nominee for president almost became the vice president and the actual nominee for vice president actually became the president. This was untenable. So they amended the constitution so that the president and vice president would actually be elected separately and directly by the electors.
If we went back to the original process for electing president, we would likely see these same faults. It is in each party's interest to control both the presidency and vice presidency, so it is in their interest to nominate multiple candidates. The electors would then need to work together to ensure that they cast their votes properly so that the right person is elected to each position. In the end, the Twelfth Amendment didn't change much of the overall strategy. It just made it easier not to screw up. Both before and after the amendment, electors were trying to fill the vice presidency with a specific person.